George Thomas Coker

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George Thomas Coker
GeorgeCoker.jpg
Coker's USN photo (c. 1980)
Born (1943-07-14) July 14, 1943 (age 71)
Amarillo, Texas
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1963–1986
Rank Commander
Unit Attack Squadron 65, USS Constellation
Battles/wars Vietnam War
Awards
Other work Distinguished Eagle Scout

George Thomas Coker (born July 14, 1943) is a retired US Navy Commander, honored with the Navy Cross for his leadership as a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War, and a Distinguished Eagle Scout noted for his devotion to Scouting.

In 1966, the A-6 Intruder on which Coker was serving as bombardier–navigator was shot down over North Vietnam. He was held as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" and other camps for 6.5 years (1966–1973). After his release, he continued to serve in the Navy until his retirement in 1986. He also returned to active participation in Scouting.

Personal information[edit]

George Coker was born in Amarillo, Texas in 1943. In 1951, his family moved to Linden, New Jersey, where he became a New Jersey high school state wrestling champion in the 142 lb weight class and played high school varsity football at Saint Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey.[1] Coker attended Rutgers University from 1961–1963, where he also wrestled. While at Rutgers, he participated in an aviation officer cadet program and was commissioned an Ensign in the United States Navy. After his release from Vietnam, he returned to college and graduated from the University of San Diego in 1976 with a BS in political science. He studied education and mathematics at Old Dominion University from 1982 to 1986. Coker is married and has three children; two daughters and a son.[2]

Scouting life[edit]

George Thomas Coker after receiving his DESA award; August 9, 2005.

Coker grew up in Linden, New Jersey and became an Eagle Scout in Troop 32 of Saint Elizabeth's Catholic Church in Linden on January 27, 1959. He has stated that his passion for Scouting is one of the things that got him through his 6.5 years as a POW in North Vietnam, to the point that at times all he could remember was the Scout Oath, but not the names of his family members.[3][4][5]

Both of Coker's older brothers were involved in Scouting and Coker first became involved when he joined Cub Scouts in late 1951. He completed the Cubbing program and joined Troop 32. Troop 32 had about a dozen members at that time but had over 60 members when Coker made Eagle Scout in 1959. During this time the troop formed an Explorer Post and Sea Scout unit. After making Eagle Scout, Coker joined the Sea Scout unit and worked at summer camp before the joined the Navy in October 1963. When Coker returned to Linden after being released from captivity, the Scouts were his biggest supporter. Troop 32 now had over 100 members. Local citizens turned out by the hundreds to greet him. Coker visited many of the local Scouting units. Coker was then inactive in Scouting during a busy Naval career, but got involved again when his son joined Cub Scouts as a Tiger Cub after the family had settled in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He became the den leader of 7 boys, all of whom earned their Arrow of Light, the highest recognition in Cub Scouting. They moved on to Troop 62, Virginia Beach, in May 1994; with five of them later becoming Eagle Scouts, including his son.[6]

Troop 62's adults asked Coker to become Scoutmaster, a position in which he served for several years. Coker is also a Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow (OA). Coker served as the lodge adviser for Tidewater Council's OA lodge, Blue Heron Lodge, from December 2005 until December 2007. He was honored by the Boy Scouts of America with their Distinguished Eagle Scout Award on August 9, 2005.[7]

Military service[edit]

Bombardier/navigator[edit]

A-6 Intruders flown by VA-65 in 1972
George Thomas Coker before his capture; May 1966

Coker served as a Naval Flight Officer for 23 years in the United States Navy. He entered the United States Navy Reserve on October 31, 1963 and entered active service at Lakehurst, New Jersey on November 13, 1963, serving until his retirement on September 30, 1986.[8] Following graduation from Aviation Officer Candidate School, he attended Basic Naval Aviation Observer (BNAO) School at NAS Pensacola, Florida followed by advanced jet navigation training at NAS Glynco, Georgia. Following graduation and receiving his wings as a Naval Aviation Observer (NAO), he completed additional training as a bombardier/navigator in the A-6 Intruder.

On his first deployment, Coker took part in a 19-aircraft attack on a radar control facility in Kep, 38 miles northeast of Hanoi. In the face of flak, automatic weapons fire and extremely difficult weather conditions, Coker directed the pilot, navigated his aircraft, managed the ordnance system and used his electronic countermeasures equipment to provide protection for the strike group. The attack inflicted significant damage on the well-protected and dug-in radar station and its equipment, with all three radar stations out of operation and the target described as "obliterated". For his actions, Coker was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal.[9][10][11]

Coker was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions the following day, July 1, 1966. His airplane was diverted to attack three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin that were heading towards U.S. Navy destroyers in the area. Coker navigated to the scene and called out airspeed, altitude and dive angle to allow the pilot to focus their attacks on the enemy boats as they in turn concentrated their fire at Coker's aircraft. One enemy ship was hit and sunk, and a second suffered a near-miss. The citation notes that "Lieutenant Coker's resourcefulness, superb airmanship, and courage in the face of great danger contributed materially to the success of the mission." In a two-hour long battle, all three ships were sunk by the U.S. Navy aircraft.[12][13]

Coker was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his actions as part of a coordinated 23-aircraft attack on petroleum storage tanks in Hai Phong on August 2, 1966, consisting of four waves of A-6 Intruders and A-4 Skyhawks, firing a combination of 750 and 1,000 pound bombs and rockets. The attack was the third in a series of attacks on North Vietnamese oil storage depots dating back to June. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, Coker provided accurate guidance to the pilot on airspeed, altitude and dive angle, while operating both the attack navigation radar system and electronic countermeasures. Despite adverse weather conditions, Coker's actions contributed to an attack that destroyed all but one of the facility's storage tanks.[14][15]

Prisoner of war[edit]

VA-65 A-6A on USS Constellation in 1966

On Coker's 55th bombing mission, he was a Lieutenant, junior grade serving as the BombardierNavigator of an A-6 Intruder from Attack Squadron 65 (VA-65) operating from the USS Constellation (CV-64), when he and his pilot, John H. "Jack" Fellowes, were shot down over North Vietnam on August 27, 1966 while flying near Vinh in Nghe An Province. The aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile, which blew off the right wing, and the two crewmembers ejected from the aircraft after it went into a flat spin. Their wingman tracked the parachutes as the crew descended, but lost sight of them due to poor visibility and flak after the crew were within 50 feet of the ground. Ejection was at about 2,000 feet altitude and 18 miles inland in flat terrain. Coker and Fellowes landed about one mile apart. Fellowes landed on a hillside and Coker in a large rice paddy in a well-populated area.[16] Both were captured by armed villagers soon after landing. For three hours after they ejected, American aircraft made a thorough search, despite moderate to heavy flak, but were unable to spot the parachutes or get a signal from their emergency beepers.[17][18][19]

Coker was held by the North Vietnamese at a number of different POW camps in the Hanoi area, including Cu Loc, Dirty Bird, Alcatraz Grove, the Zoo, Little Vegas, and Hỏa Lò Prison (the "Hanoi Hilton").[17][20]

While in a facility on the outskirts of Hanoi known as "The Zoo", he was forced to endure a torture called "the wall", in which he, as well as other prisoners, were forced to stand facing a wall in his cell with his hands above his head from the time a gong sounded at 5:30 in the morning until it sounded again at 10:00 at night. After two weeks, the knee injury he suffered when he ejected had worsened, and he was taken to a hospital where the infection was drained. After a two day respite while he recuperated, "the wall" torture continued for two more months. Coker called this "probably my worst experience in Vietnam".[17]

During his captivity, Coker was notable for the ferocity with which he resisted his incarceration.[5][21][22] Coker was considered one of "the baddest of the baddest" of the POWs, a reference to his stubborn resistance to his captivity.[23] Coker's Silver Star citation cited his fierce resistance as one of the significant reasons the North Vietnamese eventually abandoned harsh treatment of the prisoners.[24] Coker served as Chaplain to his fellow prisoners while he was in captivity, providing them with spiritual guidance and constructive counseling. For these efforts, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.[25]

In July 1967, Coker devised "unusual and ingenious methods" to allow his fellow prisoners to communicate with each other within their camp, assisting their collective efforts to resist their captor's demands and improving the morale of American and Allied POWs. For his "heroic achievement", Coker was awarded the Bronze Star.[26]

That year, Coker and Air Force Captain George McKnight (another of the "baddest") conceived an escape plan. The two would escape from their cells and make it to the nearby Red River, swim by night and hide by day, estimating that it would take three or four days to reach the mouth of the river. There they would commandeer a boat and make it out to sea where they hoped to flag down a ship of the United States Seventh Fleet, estimating that it would take eight days from their escape until their rescue.[27] The two removed the hinges from their cell and escaped from Dirty Bird prison in Hanoi the night of October 12, 1967, climbed to the roof of the prison block and jumped to another roof to escape. They tied themselves together to avoid separation and jumped into the Red River near the Tanwa Bridge. That night they made it 15 miles downstream in the dark and hid in the mud on the river's edge at daybreak. The two were recaptured 12½ hours after they had escaped when they were spotted by fishermen along the shore early that morning and were handed over to soldiers. They were held in irons at Hoa Lo prison before being returned to Dirty Bird a few days later.[20][27][28][29] Their effort made them two of the very few POWs to ever escape from a North Vietnamese POW camp. Coker was awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy's highest award for heroism, for his actions in his attempted escape as a prisoner of war.[30] The citation reads in part:

...for extraordinary heroism during an extremely daring escape from a solitary confinement cell while a Prisoner of War in Hanoi, North Vietnam on October 12, 1967. During a period of particularly harsh treatment, Lieutenant Commander Coker and another prisoner executed an escape as a two-man team despite the high risk of brutal reprisal or possible loss of life. That night, after opening the cell door by removing door bolt brackets from inside the room, he proceeded over the wall and through several blocks of housing to the Domer Bridge. Walking under the bridge to the Red River's edge, he swam downstream all night and at sunrise buried himself in a mudbank in an effort to remain concealed. He was later discovered, recaptured, severely beaten for many hours, and banished to solitary confinement for two and a half years.[31][32]

On October 25, 1967, Coker was one of 11 of the most effective resisters, among the 267 POWs then held, who were placed in a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, soon nicknamed "Alcatraz", located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. Coker and McKnight were added to nine prisoners who had been at a facility nicknamed "Vegas": Jeremiah Denton, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, James Stockdale, Ronald Storz and Nels Tanner. While most of those among the Alcatraz 11 were senior officers, Coker was the youngest and most junior of those isolated from the other POWs.[27][33] The 11, known as the "Alcatraz Gang", were separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement for their leadership in resisting their captors.[30][34] In Alcatraz, each of the 11 men were kept in solitary confinement. Coker spent two years alone in a cell measuring 3 feet by 9 feet that had a light bulb kept on around the clock. He was locked each night in irons by a guard. Coker remained in Alcatraz until December 9, 1969 and spent the next three years in captivity shuffled between a number of different prisons.[17]

George Thomas Coker shortly after his release from the POW camps in North Vietnam; March 1973.

On March 4, 1973, both Coker and Fellowes were released as part of Operation Homecoming.[20] Vietnam-era POWs were released by order of capture, and Fellowes and Coker were in the second large release group, about No. 123 and #124.[2] Of their 2,382 days in captivity (6.5 years), 2.5 years were in solitary confinement and 2.5 years in the "Hanoi Hilton". They also spent time in several other POW camps around Hanoi. Fellowes retired from the Navy in July 1986.[35]

Coker was promoted to full Lieutenant during his captivity and retroactively designated as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), all NAOs having been redesignated as NFOs during his captivity.[36] Coker was awarded six decorations at a ceremony at NAS North Island in San Diego, California: Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, Legion of Merit, and Navy Commendation. In 1974, Mayor John T. Gregorio presented him with a key to the city of Linden.[37] Coker was also awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his “aggressive leadership” as Director of the Atlantic Fleet Command Center upon retiring from the Navy.[32][38]

Coker is one of the names of fellow POW's that future Senator John McCain recites in the 2005 film, Faith of My Fathers; a film based on the 1999 McCain memoir of the same title, Faith of My Fathers.[39][40]

The anti-war film Hearts and Minds, which was critical of the United States' role in the Vietnam War, featured Coker briefly. Coker, at the time of filming, had recently returned from six and a half years of internment in North Vietnamese camps for American prisoners of war – where he had endured torture and other mistreatment by his captors. In one of the few scenes including individuals not critical of the war, the film details a homecoming parade in his honor in his hometown of Linden, New Jersey, where he tells the assembled crowd on the steps of city hall that if the need arose, that they must be ready to send him back to war.[41] Answering a student's question about what Vietnam looked like, he responded: "Well, if it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive, and they just make a mess out of everything."[42] Time magazine's Stefan Kanfer criticized the lack of balance in Coker's portrayal, noting that "[t]he camera, which amply records the agonies of South Vietnamese political prisoners, seems uninterested in the American lieutenant's experience of humiliation and torture."[43]

A fellow POW, Commander Paul Galanti, said "George is one of my heroes...but the real reason we're home is the bad guys wanted to get Coker out of the country. So, you see, George Coker is the real reason we were released."[44]

Military decorations[edit]

Navy Cross

Among Coker's military decorations are the following:[32][45]

In retirement[edit]

In addition to continued Scouting activities, Coker has been involved in supporting ex–POWs for many years. In December 2004, he was elected Commander of his local POW chapter, the Tidewater ex-POW Association. In 2008, he was also serving as the head of a Virginia state ex–POW association.[17] Coker and his wife are also active in church and civic activities, such as counseling young married couples.[3] Coker still has nightmares from his time as a POW. Reflecting on his wartime experiences in a Veterans Day tribute to POWs, he said "If you're never tested, you don't know...You're capable of a great deal more than you realize, if you really set your mind to it. Look at me. I did it, and there's nothing special about me. I'm just another guy." Coker went on to say part of that is "...realizing there's something bigger than yourself..."[17]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Annual Report 1999–2000" (PDF). St. Benedict's Prep. 2000. p. 10. Retrieved November 12, 2008. 
  2. ^ a b "Coker Interview". May 5, 2005. Retrieved May 8, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Brinkley, Robin (Aug 4, 2005). "Lesson In Distinction" (The Beacon (supplement) ed.). Virginia Beach, VA: The Virginian-Pilot. pp. cover, 12–13. 
  4. ^ Award speech by George Thomas Coker accepting his Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, Aug 9, 2005, Norfolk Waterside Marriott, Norfolk, Virginia.
  5. ^ a b Ray, Mark (2007). "What It Means to Be an Eagle Scout". Scouting Magazine. Boy Scouts of America. Retrieved July 6, 2008. 
  6. ^ Coker, George Thomas (July 31, 2006). "George Thomas Coker (item h)" (email). George Coker. Retrieved December 10, 2007. 
  7. ^ "Distinguished Eagle Scouts" (PDF). Scouting.org. Retrieved November 4, 2010. 
  8. ^ George T. Coker – Service Record, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  9. ^ George T. Coker – Navy Commendation Medal citation, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 29, 2008.
  10. ^ Mohr, Charles. "3 More Oil Storage Sites Are Raided by U.S. Planes; 3 MORE OIL DEPOTS AROUND HANOI HIT", The New York Times, July 1, 1966. "The target was near Kep, 38 miles northeast of Hanoi. All three rardar sites stopped operating and returning pilots said they had 'obliterated' the target"
  11. ^ "Air and Ground Action in Vietnam", The New York Times, July 1, 1966.
  12. ^ George T. Coker – Distinguished Flying Cross citation, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  13. ^ Sheehan, Neil. "U.S. PLANES SINK 3 TORPEDO BOATS; Hanoi Vessels Hit as They Head for 7th Fleet Ships Planes of Seventh Fleet Sink 3 Torpedo Boats", The New York Times, July 2, 1966. Retrieved July 24, 2008.
  14. ^ George T. Coker – Navy Commendation Medal citation, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 24, 2008.
  15. ^ Welles, Benjamin. "OIL AT HAIPHONG BOMBED 3D TIME BY U.S. AIRCRAFT; Pentagon Discloses Attack After Hanoi Protests to Control Commission NEUTRAL ZONE AT ISSUE Aide Hints U.S. May Refuse to Recognize a Part of It as Barred to Troops OIL AT HAIPHONG BOMBED 3D TIME", The New York Times, August 3, 1966. Retrieved July 24, 2008.
  16. ^ Coker, George Thomas (May 17, 2010). "George Thomas Coker (item i)" (email). George Coker. Retrieved May 17, 2010. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f Kimberlin, Joanne (November 11, 2008). "Our POWs: Locked up for 6 years, he unlocked a spirit inside". The Virginian Pilot (Landmark Communications). pp. 12–13. Retrieved November 11, 2008. 
  18. ^ Olson, James Stuart (1988). Dictionary of the Vietnam War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-313-24943-3. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  19. ^ Montgomery, Lacy. "POWs' captivity, survival seen through Open Doors", United States Naval Academy, February 14, 2004. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  20. ^ a b c Coker, George Thomas (1977). "POWNet record of George Thomas Coker". POWNet. Retrieved June 22, 2006. 
  21. ^ Senator John McCain's letter of endorsement to Coker's Distinguished Eagle Scout nomination, June 1, 2005.
  22. ^ Townley, Alvin (December 26, 2006). Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America's Eagle Scouts. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 64–74, 286. ISBN 978-0-312-36653-7. Retrieved December 29, 2006. 
  23. ^ Larson, Col. Gordon "Swede". "Biography of Col. Gordon "Swede" Larson". Col. Larson's home page. Col. Larson. Retrieved June 22, 2006. 
  24. ^ "Silver Star Medal – G. T. Coker". United States Navy. Retrieved August 2, 2008. 
  25. ^ "Legion of Merit – G. T. Coker". United States Navy. March 1973. Retrieved August 2, 2008. 
  26. ^ George T. Coker – Bronze Star Medal citation, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  27. ^ a b c Rochester, Stuart; and Kiley, Frederick. "Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961–1973", 2007, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-59114-738-1, via Google Books, p. 326. Accessed July 8, 2008.
  28. ^ Powers, John N. (May 2008). "Vietnam Prisoners of War" (PDF). EX-POW BULLETIN the official voice of the American Ex-Prisoners of War (American Ex-Prisoners of War) 65 (5): 10. Retrieved May 13, 2012. 
  29. ^ Return With Honor Transcript, PBS. Retrieved July 10, 2008. "That night uh, we decided to go so I sprang the lock uh, we uh, climbed up on the roof of our prison block and uh, jumped over to another roof, jumped over the wall. Ran down in the direction of uh, the Tanwa Bridge and then we tied ourselves together so we wouldn't get separated in the dark and then we jumped in the river and we proceeded to swim to California!"
  30. ^ a b Johnston, Laurie (December 18, 1974). "Notes on People, Mao Meets Mobutu in China". The New York Times. Retrieved May 3, 2010. 
  31. ^ George T. Coker – Navy Cross citation, United States Navy, undated. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
  32. ^ a b c George T. Coker, Veteran Tributes. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  33. ^ Stockdale, James B. "George Coker for Beach Schools", letter to The Virginian-Pilot, March 26, 1996.
  34. ^ Adams, Lorraine. = 19920331&slug=1483968 "Perot's Interim Partner Spent 7½ Years As POW", Dallas Morning News, March 11, 1992. Accessed July 2, 2008. "He [Stockdale] was one of the Alcatraz Gang – a group of 11 prisoners of war who were separated because they were leaders of the prisoners' resistance."
  35. ^ Kelly, Earl (May 8, 2010). "Beach Pilot was a POW in Vietnam". The Virginian Pilot via The (Annapolis, Md.) Capital. pp. HR 5. 
  36. ^ John Heaphy "Jack" Fellowes, POWnetwork.org. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  37. ^ Yeats, Lauren Pancurak (November 25, 2002). Linden, New Jersey. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing. pp. 131–132. ISBN 978-0-7385-6326-8. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  38. ^ "Meritorious Service Medal – G. T. Coker". United States Navy. September 1986. Retrieved October 16, 2008. 
  39. ^ McCain, John (August 1999). Faith of My Fathers. Random House. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-375-50191-3. "I tried to memorize the names of POWs, the names and personal details of guards and interrogators... to keep my faculties sound." 
  40. ^ McCain, John S. (May 14, 1973). "How the POWs Fought Back". archived U.S. News & World Report, (page 46 ff) article at Free Republic (U.S. News & World Report). 
  41. ^ Anderegg, Michael A. "Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television", via Google Books, Temple University Press. Retrieved January 10, 2008.
  42. ^ Lane, Anthony (November 1, 2004). "Aftermaths: Enduring Love, Hearts and Minds". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 29, 2008. 
  43. ^ Kanfer, Stefan. "War-Torn', Time (magazine),March 17, 1975. Retrieved August 11, 2008.
  44. ^ Galanti, Paul (May 5, 2005). "Galanti (Coker) Interview". Tidewater Council. Retrieved November 5, 2007. 
  45. ^ "Mac's Facts No. 74 NAM-POW Medals". Veteran Tributes. April 26, 2008. Retrieved July 17, 2008. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]